Releasing a brand-new console nowadays is a difficult and costly ordeal that even the established giants of the industry don’t always get right. From the Atari Jaguar to the PlayStation Vita, history has plenty of examples of failed products for the most diverse of reasons. And in this consolidated market with the usual suspects releasing the usual products, anyone trying to snatch a piece of that pie needs to bring in something truly great to the table if they wish to stand a chance. Back in 2009, one company thought they had what it took to snag that metaphorical piece. Boy, how wrong they were.
When it comes to the Zeebo, there are only three types of people: those that laugh at the mere mention of the name, those that have no idea what a Zeebo is, and the weird ones that remember something related to iCarly of all things (the internet will reveal strange things, kids) and chances are, you’re in the second group. To understand the history of this “console”, one must first talk about the minds behind it, TecToy. This company was responsible for bringing us Sega related consoles and games up until the end of the Dreamcast era, and nowadays they officially sell both the Mega Drive and Genesis (and you can actually put extra games in an SD card, but I digress). They’re beloved for being a big part of many childhoods and giving us a way to revisit that past without using emulators, so it goes without saying that they know a thing or two about video games.
So when it came time for them to enter the market, there was a fair bit of expectation, and on paper this had potential: a console aimed at developing countries that didn’t use any physical media, with games downloaded straight from a dedicated 3G network—hell, a modem wasn’t even required to do so, since the console had everything needed built-in. Not only that, but games would not cost more than 15-ish USD at the time. It seemed as though the Zeebo had everything needed to be your first-console type of deal, or maybe appeal to an even more casual audience than the Wii, and I even found a few articles back then that had optimistic views on the console (maybe too optimistic). If nothing else, maybe it could’ve found a niche and sat comfortably there. And this is where it hits the fan.
What followed after the announcement was a comedy of errors derived from either sheer stupidity or someone trying to pull a get-rich-quick scheme, depending on your interpretation. I’ll start with the most visible problem, the price, and for the sake of everyone’s sanity, I’ll convert the values we paid to dollars to the best of my ability. So you’re selling the console for people that can’t afford consoles. What should be the asking price? How about we start at 220 USD? This was a major red flag (the biggest one, but not the worst), so why should anyone even consider getting this when you could get a PS2 for around 170 USD—for a console already well-loved, established, with a giant library of classics and that literally every single shady retailer in town knew how to jailbreak? Yes, this meant you were buying from the gray market, but the PS2 is reliable as a sunrise, so issues were few and far between. And that market is actually part of the reason why we have a second player on this stage: an American company called Qualcomm.
You see, TecToy were way in over their heads with this project, realizing that they needed partners both for the money and the technology, ‘cause who would’ve thunk, releasing a console takes a lot of cash. After searching, they found one in Qualcomm and their development platform, BREW, as it offered (and I’m paraphrasing here) “the solution to piracy and the functionality of the online store”, according to Reinaldo Normand, the man who came up with the Zeebo. So he’d get the tech, the money, and the anti-piracy solution, killing a lot of birds with one stick of dynamite. Too bad he got caught in the blast.
Quite literally. The decision to use the BREW was a logical one, given the intended purpose of the Zeebo, but this ultimately doomed the console from the start. Qualcomm’s chipset might’ve been decent for the time, but it wasn’t developed with a video game in mind. Not only did it have features that were useless for a console, but the simplicity of the hardware made it difficult (and expensive) to port games for the damn thing. This made the Zeebo a glorified cell phone, one that would never fit inside your pocket, make calls, take photos, or access the internet—that last one actually had to be added in a future version of the console. I hope the irony is not lost upon you, cause there’s enough of it to make a new Iron Man trilogy.
With this in mind, it’s no wonder that comparisons with the PS2 were made since the Zeebo felt like a half-assed attempt at making a PS One that maybe could reach the level of a PSP some years down the line, if the stars align just the right way. Mind you, this was 2009, a time when Sony and Microsoft were competing to see who could better render Chris Redfield’s biceps and Nintendo was too busy already dominating the so-called casual market with the Wii. I’m well aware that graphics are not everything (My profile pic is a SNES controller, for Locke’s sake!) and technical limitations usually lead to developers getting creative, but the Zeebo didn’t want to go that route. It wanted to be the “fourth console” of the 7th generation, even though they previously said they didn’t want to compete, and if you’re confused, don’t worry, it gets worse. This was like watching a beetle boldly declare it was going to compete in the NASCAR circuit, and the result was David Cage levels of predictable. And the lack of third party support—coupled with the very late arrival of a first party—was just the perfect cherry for this messy, poorly-rendered cake. Because a console needs games like a camel needs water, and the Zeebo was dead dry.
In the two years that the Zeebo lived (or rather, survived), only 55 games released for the console, most of them not worth mentioning. When the servers officially closed on September 30th of 2011 due to the lack of physical media, that was it—you could never install anything on the console ever again, making whatever Zeebo containing the (very few) good games installed a very precious collector’s item. After all, they are literally irreplaceable (there’s no emulator for the Zeebo)—well, officially, that is. The console did get a jailbreak of sorts later that year and it’s possible to find all the ROMs with a quick Google search, so at the very least, that part of history is preserved.
But let’s take it from the top. The Zeebo came with three games pre-installed: NFS: Carbon, FIFA 09 and Treino Cerebral (Brain Challenge out there). The last one is one of those educational games that were about as fun as staring at the ceiling, and the first two were ports of the PSP versions that, unsurprisingly, looked worse than their original counterparts. Besides those, three more games were available for free download (oddly enough, they were all shooters): Prey: Evil, Quake I, and Quake II. The last two need no introduction and the first one is a mobile version of Prey (2006). Yes, the Zeebo literally had a port of a freaking Java game. There was a reason for that, besides the hardware: the games had a capsize of 50 MB. Talk about killer apps.
The Zeebo would then go on to have its price reduced twice, settling in around 129 USD and finally reaching stores all around the country. It also reached the Mexican market for 159 USD according to my math, but that version came with a keyboard and five games instead of three. The following year, the console would bleed games, starting with both Quake games being removed from the catalog on June 15th, and not a week later on the 21st, NSF: Carbon would follow. Fast-forward a few months and the Zeebo would receive the Zeebo Sports, a collection of four sports games compatible with the Boomerang, Zeebo’s motion-sensor controller that was so original, it never left Brazil for fear of being imitated out there. 2011 would simply mark the end of the console, with the announcement about the closure of the servers, the removal of a Monica’s Gang game and a very late release in China, but there’s far too little information about that out there for it to be worth talking about.
Thus, the Zeebo came to an end, but it would be remiss of me not to mention two of its most notorious games: Resident Evil 4, and if this isn’t definitive proof that Capcom will stick RE 4 in anything that can render a pixel, I don’t know what is. (Also, the zombies were blue. No, I don’t know why!) The second is Double Dragon, a full-blown remake of a classic with better graphics, music, new enemies and bosses, new moves, and even unlockable characters. Considered by many as the best version of Double Dragon, this exclusive title is easily the most valuable game on the console, and the reason why collectors won’t let go of their Zeebos.
Having the benefit of hindsight while doing this research was a blessing. Most of the articles and opinions floating around the time the Zeebo ended its activities had this “so long” attitude towards the console, and I can’t say that I blame them. It would be years until the people involved would share their experiences, thus shedding light on the topic. They shared stories of how the simple act of adding a second joystick to the system was ridiculously tough thanks to BREW’s nature as a single user OS, the cold reception they got from third parties, and how Qualcomm and TecToy disagreed on their views of the system: the former wanted to promote their chipsets and the latter wanted to make a console.
Even the release of the console was troublesome since TecToy wanted more time to polish the system and its games, but Qualcomm owned the money (they initially invested around 5 million USD, while TecToy invested only 2 million) and they wanted the product out ASAP. The release price was also a result of these disagreements: Qualcomm didn’t subsidize Zeebo’s chip (despite both companies being partners) and that coupled with our infamous taxes resulted in a product that was way overpriced for what it offered and was still not enough to actually make a profit.
And in the face of all of that bullshit, I still think TecToy had their hearts in the right place. Yes, they made some pretty bad decisions, like trying to imitate the Wii (There was even something called Zeeboids, that were basically Miis!), or pushing the educational angle, but I can’t help but sympathize with them. They even got some deals with companies like Disney, Namco, and most fittingly, Sega. A shame most of these went nowhere, having a Sega game on a TecToy console would be almost poetic, given their close relationship (and lucky us, said relationship survived this fiasco). At one point, games like Crazy Taxi and Sonic Adventure were planned for the Zeebo, but were ultimately canned.
Ten years later, the Zeebo is but a faint memory, with many not aware it even exists, largely thanks to severe lack of archiving (even Wayback Machine failed me a couple times during this research). Born outta good intentions, doomed by design and paradoxical in its execution, the Zeebo is a crash course on what not to do when releasing a console, and a curious, albeit unknown, piece of videogame history.